Nick Clegg shows Ruairi Quinn and Labour why he (they) should say sorry to USI on the false pledge to students.

By Robert Winnett and James Kirkup
6:52PM BST 19 Sep

The Deputy Prime Minister said that the pledge had been a mistake but that the subsequent decision to almost triple tuition fees was correct.

The Liberal Democrat leader said that he has learnt from “the mistake” and that he will “never again” make a pledge unless he is absolutely clear that it can be kept.
In a party political broadcast to be aired during next week’s Liberal Democrat conference, Mr Clegg will admit that “many” of the party’ssupporters “have strong – and pretty mixed reactions” to some of the party’s actions in Government.

He will say: “I’d like to take this opportunity to put a few things straight….Many of you tell me you’re glad that at a time of real economic uncertainty, we put aside our political differences to provide our country with stable leadership. But, I also meet people who are disappointed and angry that we couldn’t keep all our promises – above all our promise not to raise tuition fees.”

He will add: “To those people, I say this: we made a promise before the election that we would vote against any rise in fees under any circumstances. But that was a mistake. It was a pledge made with the best of intentions – but we shouldn’t have made a promise we weren’t absolutely sure we could deliver.
“I shouldn’t have committed to a policy that was so expensive when there was no money around… But I also realise that isn’t the point.
There’s no easy way to say this: we made a pledge, we didn’t stick to it – and for that I am sorry.”

The backing given by Mr Clegg to the Coalition policy to almost triple fees to £9,000 a year within months of the election alienated hundreds of thousands of Liberal Democrat voters. The party slumped to less than ten percent in the polls amid warnings it will be wiped out at the next election.

The unusual decision to apologise – likened to Tony Blair’s masochism strategy before the 2005 general election – was made by the Deputy Prime Minister during his summer holiday.
Despite opposition from his advisers, Mr Clegg is keen to “draw a line” about speculation over his leadership at next week’s Liberal Democrat conference and believes the time has now come to directly address critics within his party.

Senior sources say that Mr Clegg is not “expecting absolution” but believes it is now time to “fess up and move on.” A well-placed source said: “The Liberal Democrats have been on an extraordinary and dramatic journey. We have got some things wrong, and we need to be candid about that, but on the key central, economic decisions, the right calls have been made. It’s time to focus on that.”

Business Secretary Vince Cable last night also apologised for the pledge.
Speaking on Newsnight he said senior Liberal Democrats were sceptical about the move ahead of the last general election but decided to press ahead with the idea aimed at wooing students.

He said Danny Alexander, now Chief Secretary to the Treasury, warned colleagues the policy was unaffordable should the party find itself in government. Mr Cable insisted it was not just Nick Clegg who was apologising but the parliamentary party as a whole.

He said: ”I was sceptical about the pledge but we agreed collectively to do it and I take my share of the responsibility.

”I personally was sceptical about the whole fees policy. I signed the pledge on the basis that had we been in Government on our own, which was the commitment, we would have put through that policy and we would have done so.”

Mr Clegg’s apology comes as one of his closest allies said that the Liberal Democrat leader has to be more “robust” and show stronger leadership over his party.
Richard Reeves, the Deputy Prime Minister’s former strategy director, said Mr Clegg must stop attempting to “manage” his party and give it a clear sense of direction and a distinctly liberal agenda.

Mr Clegg should also “stand up” against the Conservatives on a range of issues where the Coalition is creating a “nanny state” that intrudes on personal freedom, Mr Reeves says, highlighting new rules on data surveillance and the sale of alcohol and cigarettes.
Mr Reeves’ observations on Mr Clegg’s leadership and agenda come as the Lib Dems prepare for their annual party conference amid dismal poll ratings and whispers about Mr Clegg’s future.

Writing in the New Statesman, Mr Reeves warns Mr Clegg’s internal critics that undermining him will hurt the party and jeopardise the entire government.
“The economic credibility of the coalition government is a precious national asset. It will be threatened if the leadership question continues to be posed, especially by senior colleagues,” Mr Reeves writes.

That remark will be seen as directed at Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, who has hinted at his own leadership ambitions and admitted to private contacts with senior Labour figures.

However, Mr Reeves also says that Mr Clegg “has work to do” to affirm his leadership.
“He needs to distinguish the brand of liberal politics that he is selling and declare his liberal hand more openly. The party has to be led in a more robustly liberal direction,” Mr Reeves writes. “Rather than attempting to manage the party where it stands, Clegg has to lead his party to the place it needs to be.”

That means rejecting Conservative-driven proposals on minimum alcohol pricing; “intrusive” curbs on the use of pornography on the internet and tobacco sales. David Cameron “has too often followed the lead of the ‘nanny state’ Labour ministers he used to mock,” Mr Reeves writes, suggesting the Lib Dems can win back support by rejecting such measures.